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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flight will put Sir Richard Branson a step ahead of Jeff Bezos in a billionaires’ scramble for the stars. But on Earth, big legal, logistical and environmental questions await them in the field of private spaceflight

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Illustration by David Parkins

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law. Aaron Boley holds the Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy. They teach at the University of British Columbia and co-direct the Outer Space Institute.

Humanity is about to witness a remarkable feat as Sir Richard Branson rides a white rocket plane to the edge of space.

Our knight’s mission? “Evaluating the customer spaceflight experience” on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo — and documenting it on social media.

Sir Richard has a history of taking already cool enterprises, adding the Virgin brand, and making them even cooler. Having watched the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo missions as a teenager, he’s long known that nothing – not record stores, planes or trains – will ever be as cool as space.

In 2004, a small U.S. company called Scaled Composites won the $10-million Ansari X-Prize by twice flying an experimental rocket plane, SpaceShipOne, to an altitude higher than 100 kilometres. Impressed by the global attention given to the feat, Sir Richard hired Scaled Composites to build him a spacecraft based on SpaceShipOne’s design.

The new SpaceShipTwo is able to carry two pilots and six paying passengers to an altitude of 80 km — the lowest and easiest-to-reach definition of space, and thus the most profitable.

Eighty kilometres is approximately the transition point between the upper levels of the atmosphere: the mesosphere and the thermosphere. It’s the altitude where, in the 1960s, U.S. Air Force pilots flying the X-15 rocket plane earned their astronaut wings.

Yet 80 km is not widely accepted as the boundary of space. Led on this issue by the non-governmental Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, most countries use a 100 km threshold – the so-called Karman Line – to define the start of space.

Will Sir Richard become an “astronaut” this weekend? With about half of his fortune invested in Virgin Galactic, the British entrepreneur has a great deal riding on 80 km being considered good enough. After all, who would pay $250,000 to call themselves an “almost astronaut”?

Fortunately for Sir Richard, this matter will be settled on social and traditional media rather than in an international court.

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Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane takes off with the SpaceShipTwo passenger craft in a 2019 test run in Mojave, Calif.Gene Blevins/Reuters

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Sir Richard Branson, third from right, and the SpaceShipTwo team: Chief pilot Dave Mackay, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, vice-president of government affairs and research operations Sirisha Bandla and pilot Michael Masucci.Virgin Galactic via AP

Altitude is only one issue, however. Flying on a commercial airliner doesn’t make you an aviator. Riding in a ferry doesn’t make you a mariner. Perhaps we should distinguish between the flight crew and the passengers when deciding whether someone can call themselves an astronaut. Anyone who guides a rocket plane to 80 km on dozens, perhaps hundreds of occasions will be demonstrating an awesome level of skill and courage.

As for the passengers, whether astronauts or astro-nots, getting launched to 80 km also takes courage—or perhaps, a certain lack of awareness. Spaceflight is always perilous; even among national space agencies, flights are never treated as routine.

Based on its design and early performance, the Space Shuttle was estimated to have an overall failure rate of about 1 per cent. In the end, two spacecraft were lost out of 135 missions.

Virgin Galactic faces unique safety challenges since SpaceShipTwo, unlike automated rockets, is manoeuvered by pilots while becoming supersonic and climbing to an altitude that’s eight times that used by commercial airliners. In 2014, a pilot error led to a fatal accident during a test flight.

Another risk derives from the fact that Virgin Galactic does not provide pressurized suits to its crew or passengers. Pressurized suits have always been considered a necessity by national space agencies for both launch and reentry. In 1961, when “Ham the Chimp” was launched on a Redstone-Mercury rocket, a pressurized suit saved his life after the capsule sprung a leak.

The lack of pressurized suits cannot be a question of style. Beginning with Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, such suits are part of the idealistic image of an astronaut. The omission might be part of Virgin Galactic’s effort to make space travel seem routine — just as Stanley Kubrick did, more than half-a-century ago, in the Blue Danube scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If so, it’s dangerously misleading.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about finding new and cheaper ways to access space. The development of commercial spacecraft could lead to innovations of general value. The problem, rather, is one of volume, with humanity already struggling to limit its collective impact on the atmosphere and Earth orbits.

Sir Richard is planning for a very large number of tourist flights. In 2018, he said: “There are, we believe, millions of people who would love to go to space, and we want to tap into those people. If you can create the best — the best hotel chain, the best clubs, the best spaceship company — it’ll become very valuable.”

For someone who once spent a lot of time and energy cultivating an image as a climate change activist, Sir Richard’s embrace of space tourism represents a stunning turnaround. In 2010, the development of SpaceShipTwo prompted a peer-reviewed study, which predicted that “emissions from a fleet of 1000 launches per year of suborbital rockets would create a persistent layer of black carbon particles in the northern stratosphere that could cause potentially significant changes in the global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and temperature.” Although the study was not specific to the form of synthetic rubber used as fuel in SpaceShipTwo’s “hybrid” rocket motor, it emphasized that the black carbon produced in the upper atmosphere by such rockets could have a “radiative forcing effect” that exceeds, by several orders of magnitude, the climate impact of their carbon dioxide emissions.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration overlooked the issue of black carbon when it conducted an environmental assessment of SpaceShipTwo in 2012. But this does not mean that the rest of us should give Virgin Galactic a pass on its cumulative, potentially massive climate effects.

That same 2010 peer-reviewed study concluded that the buildup of black carbon from all these joyrides to the edge of space might, over a decade, cause as much damage to the atmosphere as all subsonic aviation; in other words, all the goods and millions of people transported by air around the world each day.

What if all the efforts the rest of us are making to mitigate climate change – whether paying carbon taxes, retrofitting buildings, buying electric cars, or avoiding long-haul vacations – are about to be nullified by the wealthiest 0.1 per cent engaging in space tourism? Virgin Galactic should be required to address its potential climate effects, including from black carbon, with publicly accessible data — or limit flights until it adopts a less-polluting fuel.

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Jeff Bezos addresses the media about the New Shepard rocket booster and Crew Capsule mockup at a 2017 symposium in Colorado.Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters

Sir Richard’s selection of this weekend for a first flight is part of his marketing strategy. By rushing to space on July 11, he’s beating Jeff Bezos to the limelight. Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the world’s richest man, announced last month that he’ll be launching on July 20.

Mr. Bezos’s spacecraft was developed by his company Blue Origin. Called “New Shepard” after the first American in space, this stubby rocket propels a small capsule onto a ballistic trajectory before returning to the launch site and landing on legs. The capsule, designed for six paying passengers, delivers several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth using parachutes.

Both the rocket and the capsule are automated; no crew is required. As with Virgin Galactic, pressurized spacesuits are not provided. But unlike Virgin Galactic’s ship, New Shepard reaches the 100 km threshold, thus ensuring that its passengers could be widely accepted as genuine astronauts. This is particularly important for 82-year-old Wally Funk, who will fly with Mr. Bezos on July 20. Ms. Funk was one of the “Mercury 13”— highly skilled pilots who, in the 1960s, were never selected for the astronaut program only because they were women.

Offering Ms. Funk a seat on New Shepard is a great and generous thing to do, but it won’t spare Mr. Bezos some ridicule.

“Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol” – That’s what Elon Musk tweeted in April, after Blue Origin complained to NASA about SpaceX winning a US$2.9-billion contract to construct a lunar lander. The CEO of SpaceX and Tesla could have become an astronaut by now, had he wished to do so. The International Space Station orbits at an altitude of around 400 km and SpaceX has flown NASA astronauts there on three occasions.

Instead, Mr. Musk is focused on providing in space what Amazon provides on Earth: a reliable, relatively low-cost delivery service available to all-comers. The development of a human-rated spacecraft, Crew Dragon, has also enabled a highly professional passenger service. SpaceX’s spacesuits are not only fashionably designed; they’re pressurized.

Whether it’s NASA sending astronauts to the ISS or American tech billionaire Jared Isaacman taking three buddies on a spin round the planet, SpaceX is now the go-to provider.

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SpaceX founder Elon Musk smiles at a 2020 news conference to discuss the Crew Dragon astronaut capsule in Cape Canaveral, Fla.Joe Skipper/Reuters

It’s on the environmental front that Mr. Musk slips to Sir Richard’s and Mr. Bezos’s level. Orbital launches are generally worse for the atmosphere than suborbital launches since it takes more energy – more combustion – to achieve orbital speeds. Such launches also often leave spent rocket stages and other objects behind in Low Earth Orbit, increasing the operational hazards for thousands of satellites as well as the ISS and China’s new space station.

The total impact of this form of tourism will, again, depend on its volume. One of SpaceX’s partners, Axiom, already has plans for an orbital hotel — presumably modelled on the spaceliner in the 1997 film The Fifth Element. Meanwhile, Japanese fashion billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has booked a SpaceX Starship to take himself and eight others on a journey ‘round the Moon — in 2023.

Mr. Musk is hardly worried about competition from Sir Richard or Mr. Bezos. With US$2-billion in annual revenue, large profit margins thanks to reusable rockets, and a “mega-constellation” of high-speed internet satellites under construction, SpaceX dominates the commercial space domain.

But Sir Richard is the king of self-promotion, with an ability to draw in A-list celebrities to boost his own stature. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are all rumoured to have reservations on SpaceShipTwo.

These and other prospective space tourists express a desire to engage in “exploration” and to view our fragile “pale blue dot” against the backdrop of the void. This last desire is often expressed alongside the goal of raising environmental awareness, including the need for those of us who’ve stayed on Earth to change our personal behaviours.

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Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté became the first Canadian space tourist in 2009.Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

In 2009, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté became Canada’s first space tourist, travelling to the ISS for 12 days on a Soyuz rocket. He claimed the journey as a business expense — a “social and poetic mission” to raise awareness about the need for improved access to fresh water. The Tax Court of Canada disagreed, ruling that “the motivating, essential and overwhelmingly primary purpose of the travel was personal.” Next year, Canadian financier Mark Pathy will travel to the ISS on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. He’ll justify that eight-day visit by conducting medical research on himself.

These wannabe astronauts use deep pockets to bypass rigorous selection processes. They undergo minimal training and have no real inflight responsibilities. Ham the Chimp was different: His job was to push a lever to test reaction times in space.

Space tourists sometimes also profess a desire to test themselves against new challenges, likening their trip to those taken by the first astronauts, or high-risk adventure sports such as summiting Mount Everest or sailing singlehandedly round the world. But without any control over the spacecraft, they’re just cargo with a camera.

National space agencies, in contrast, have always focused on cutting-edge science and international collaboration. The ISS is humanity’s laboratory in constant freefall, where Russian cosmonauts and Western astronauts live and conduct research together. They’re the real space heroes, along with the scientists and engineers who develop satellites that enable search and rescue and disaster relief, help feed the world, support environmental science, enable safe transportation and global communications, warn us of solar storms and expand our understanding of the universe.

These uses of space also come with environmental costs, but benefit all of humanity. Space tourists are engaged in a form of extinction tourism. They’re like passengers on an Arctic cruise ship, spewing greenhouse gases as they travel to the melting ice — to see it before it’s gone.

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Illustration by David Parkins

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